Firm line needed on Israel

The toughest meeting of Barack Obama’s young presidency is approaching. In the next few weeks, he will have to sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The difficulty is not just that Netanyahu refuses to accept the right of a Palestinian state to exist, showing that the Palestinians have no partner for peace.
More burdensome are the ghosts of past United States policies.

If Obama sincerely wants to break the stalemate of the Middle East’s core conflict, he will have to launch the US’s relationship with Israel in a radically new direction.

Israel must be treated as a normal country. It cannot enjoy permanent licence to escape criticism for policies that would be condemned if carried out by any other government.

Even if Israelis, through their complex coalition arrangements, had anointed a more enlightened leader, this would be necessary. It is doubly essential now that Israel has chosen a man of aggressive and narrow vision.

The day of the blank cheque must be over. Why should a country with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes receive about $3-billion annually, or roughly a third of the US foreign aid budget (excluding extra support from the Pentagon)?

Why should it not have to account for aid? A conscious lack of oversight allows Washington to turn a blind eye to the fact that US tax dollars are financing illegal settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank and helping to build the so-called apartheid wall.

Unless Obama ends the special relationship with Israel, it will be the Achilles heel of his foreign policy. The US’s standing in the Middle East, its influence in the Gulf, its image in the Muslim world, its relationship with Iran, and even its support in Europe are all linked to its treatment of Israel.

Obama’s comments about Israel before his election suggested that this was likely to be his weakness. His first 100 days have done nothing to suggest otherwise.

His speeches in Turkey, directed at Muslim audiences, showed no recognition that most Turks, Arabs and Iranians see US policy towards Israel as unfair and partisan.

His resounding appeal in Prague for a nuclear-free world contained no reference to Israel’s nuclear arsenal or the need for all nuclear countries, including India and Pakistan, to join the non-proliferation treaty.

If Iran, a signatory of the NPT, is rightly pressed for transparency, it is hypocrisy not to press the non-signatories to be as honest.

Obama’s admirable wish to reduce the world’s nuclear stockpile cannot stop at the gates of Dimona and the sites where Israel’s nuclear warheads are kept.

Israel’s decades of indulgence from US presidents and a largely supine Congress have produced a culture where it virtually dictates US policy.

Israel helped to create Hamas as a way of undermining its then bugbear, Yasser Arafat, but now that Hamas is independent, strong and popular, Israel sees it as the new target. The Obama administration should not go along with this.

As David Gardner argues in his excellent book, Last Chance, “boycotting Hamas has been self-defeating. There is no legal or moral reason why Hamas—or anyone else—should recognise a state that refuses to define its boundaries, which are being expanded daily on Palestinian land.”

Seeking to destroy Hamas after it won the Palestinian elections was, apart from the Iraq invasion, Bush’s biggest foreign policy blunder, and one the European Union foolishly supported.

Some European governments want to change. They have held indirect talks with Hamas and may move to direct ones. Obama should do the same.

If Washington can talk to North Korea and Iran, it has no reason to boycott the people who won the last Palestinian election and are likely to win the next. Far from defeating Hamas, Israel’s war on Gaza has made it stronger, while further reinforcing Israel’s image as a bully.

By the same token, the US needs to talk to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel’s war on Hezbollah in 2006 was as brutal as its war on Gaza this year—both rested on the policy of collective punishment.

Now Netanyahu is seeking to link Iran even more closely to Israeli policy than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. Without moves to stop Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear bomb and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, there can be no chance of Israel agreeing to peace talks, his officials say.

The key thing Obama should tell Netanyahu is that Washington rejects such linkage. The main source of tension in the Middle East and the Gulf is not Iran, but Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

An old issue cannot be hidden behind a new one. Until Israel pulls back to the 1967 borders, give or take some land swaps, under international agreement, Palestinian resistance will continue—and other states will be entitled to support it.

As for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Obama must reject it openly. When Olmert raised the issue last year even Bush told him it was unacceptable because an attack would be seen as having US support.

Bush saw that his last hopes of retaining credibility in the Muslim world would collapse, but his message to Olmert was delivered privately.

Obama should not only tell Netanyahu the same thing. He should give his message loud and clear. He should also declare that any US attack on Iran is off the table.

Obama’s third point should be that he does not stand behind the letter Bush wrote to Ariel Sharon in 2004 accepting Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “new realities” that need not be abandoned.

The document was not a treaty or even a bilateral government agreement. It should be overridden by a new letter stating that the US considers every post-1967 settlement illegal. Only through a dramatic break from previous American policy can Obama prepare the ground for a lasting agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

UN should press for reparations, says inquiry
A UN inquiry this week accused the Israeli military of negligence or recklessness in its conduct of the war in Gaza in January and said the UN should press for reparations for deaths and damage, write Rory McCarthy and Ed Pilkington.

The investigation, the first into the three-week war other than those by human rights researchers and journalists, held the Israeli government responsible in seven cases in which UN property was damaged and UN staff and other civilians were hurt or killed.

But the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, rejected the call for a full and impartial investigation and refused to publish the complete 184-page report. Only his own summary of the report has been released.

Israel rejected the findings, even before the summary was released, as “tendentious’ and “patently biased”. The board of inquiry, led by former Amnesty International head Ian Martin, had limited scope, looking only at deaths, injuries or damage involving UN property and staff. But its conclusions amount to a challenge to Israel.

It found the Israeli military’s actions “involved varying degrees of negligence or recklessness”, and that it took inadequate precautions in regard to UN premises. It said the deaths of civilians should be investigated under international humanitarian law.

The UN should “seek accountability and pursue claims to secure reparation or reimbursement” over deaths or injury to UN staff and damage to UN property where the responsibility lay with Israel, Hamas or any other party, the report added. More than $11-million worth of damage was caused to UN premises.

The inquiry looked at nine incidents, in which several Palestinians died. It found the Israeli military had “breached the inviolability” of the UN in seven cases. In one case, Palestinian militants, probably from Hamas, were held responsible. A final case was unclear.

The summary will now go to the UN security council.

Ban later confirmed that he would be seeking no further official inquiry into the Gaza events and denied his decision not to publish the full report amounted to a watering down of the findings. He would be looking for reparations from Israel on a “case-by-case” basis. The inquiry was independent, and he was powerless to edit its conclusions.

Israel’s foreign ministry said the army had investigated its own conduct and proved beyond doubt that it had not fired intentionally at UN buildings.
It said the inquiry had “preferred the claims of Hamas, a murderous terror organisation, and by doing so has misled the world”.

The most serious incident investigated took place on January 6, near a UN school in Jabaliya used as a shelter for hundreds of Palestinians who had fled their homes. The Israeli military had fired several mortar rounds in the vicinity of the school, killing between 30 and 40 Palestinians, the inquiry found.

Israel said Hamas had fired mortars from the school, but the inquiry found this to be untrue.—

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